Category Archives: Information Literacy

Critical Information Literacy for First-Generation College Students

Last week, I re-read James Elmborg’s seminal article “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice” as part of a homework assignment for an upcoming ACRL Immersion workshop. Every time I read it I engage with the text from a different perspective, and I always learn something new. It had been over a year since my last reading—during which I completed my first year as a reference and instruction librarian—and critical librarianship feels less theoretical and more intuitive to me now. In other words, as I read the article through the lens of my first year experiences, I reflected on the practical applications of critical information literacy in the classroom, behind the reference desk, and in the development of asynchronous materials.

After reading the article, I thought about all of the times I have messed up during an instruction session—not pushing back on instructors who insist that a librarian’s “job” is to present a laundry list of skills-based concepts during a thirty-minute one-shot session, making assumptions about students, and neglecting to discuss the lack of alternative ideas in the traditional peer-review process. But I also reflected on the aspects of critical information literacy that inherently have been part of my philosophy since day one, such as focusing on student-centered learning, admitting (and explicitly stating) to students that I am not an expert, and telling students “I don’t know, maybe we can find an answer together” when stumped by a question. Most important, this reading of Elmborg’s article spurred me to think more pedagogically about my work with first-generation college students (FGCS).

Critical lens. If we perceive education as a “profoundly political activity” and value librarianship as guided by a “student-centered educational philosophy,” then thinking critically about who our students are is arguably one of the most important parts of our jobs (p. 193). At my institution, approximately fifteen percent of the student body consists of FGCS, which equates to approximately 6,000 students. Expecting FGCS to seamlessly assimilate into the traditionally white elite sociocultural environment of a large private university (like mine) is negligent at best. There are many campus stakeholders who understand this and work with FGCS from the beginning of orientation week to them help navigate the social, cultural, political, and financial waters of my institution. But, there is still so much work to be done, especially within the realm of library instruction.

One of my favorite quotes from Elmborg’s article underscores the barriers that schools (and the libraries within them) need to overcome when reaching out to FGCS:

“Rather than define these students (those outside of an idealized student body) as ‘deficient,’ we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

So what does this mean for library instruction, which is the primary way that many students at my institution connect to the library? We must first assert our roles as educators. This not only helps us to gain more trust and authority from disciplinary faculty, but it grounds our fundamental purpose. As an educator, my most vital missions are bridging the gap between student and teacher, and breaking down the traditional role of educators as authoritative figures that perpetuate the banking cycle of neoliberal education. And for students whose parents or guardians did not attend or did not complete college, this endeavor becomes even more pressing.

I make my first attempt at chipping away from these traditional roles by telling students that the classroom facilitates a conversation, not a lecture. I also tell students to call me by my first name (sometimes students become visibly uncomfortable with this prospect), and do NOT introduce myself as some sort of expert – because I am not. Yes, those letters behind my email signature represent Master of Library and Information Science, meaning that I completed the necessary coursework to gain the degree. But I explain that they probably know more than I do about many types of information, such as social media, and they bring unique sets of experiences to the table. If I am an expert, then they are, too.

I also try to do my very, very best not to frame one information source as “better” than the other. Rather, I frame the discussion around the purpose of the information, and the power structures inherent in information privilege. These ideas help all students feel comfortable in the classroom, not only “those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

Critical literacy and academic discourse. Elmborg posits that literacy events take many forms in higher education – lectures, debates, essays, etc. – and range from formal to informal (p. 196). These events function, on one hand, as a method of imparting standards in the community and, on the other, as a way of academic exclusion, i.e. they determine “who belongs in college and who does not” (p. 197). The stakes are high for all students, but especially for FGCS, whose families and friends may never have taken part in the tacit and explicit political and academic underpinnings of the college.

Many of my institution’s FGCS student task force’s conversations have revolved around this point. Office hours are a primary point of contention among our FGCS. If you do not have a family member or peer to initiate you in the structure of college, how do you know office hours are important and, in many cases, crucial for academic success? You do not. Similarly, several FGCS have expressed discomfort, at the least, and embarrassment at most, at the suggestion of going to the Writing Center or contacting a librarian for research help. These are institutionalized processes inherent in the politics of student success in the academy. Critical information literacy means that I, as an educator, take one-shot sessions as an opportunity to underscore the importance of office hours. I explain what the Writing Center does and encourage students to reach out if they need further assistance. If a student is reluctant or grappling with a particularly tricky research question, I remember their name and follow up with them after class. This provides no quick solution to the issue, but it starts the conversation. Critical information literacy means reflecting, challenging, and changing traditional academic models (tenure processes, peer-review, etc.) But what else can librarians do as educators to challenge academic exclusion?

Critically examine what we ask students to do and how we ask them to do it. Elmborg recently participated in a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference panel Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View. I live tweeted much of the presentation and continue to reflect on what Elmborg said about thesis statements.

CritLib copy

Thesis statements are so, so hard for me; often, I do not know what I am really trying to say until I have worked out some of the mechanics behind the argument. I do not have any real solution here for how to teach such complex work, but applying critical information literacy means being cognizant of the tremendous tasks we are asking students to do. Thesis statements *are* hard!

One of my favorite critical information literacy articles is Michelle Reale’s “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars”. During a library instruction session in a course titled English 299: Interpreting Literature, Reale engaged students in an activity to help them develop and interpret topics through a critical lens. Reale role-played the exercise with the course instructor to demonstrate how asking simple questions about feeling, meaning, and subtext lays the groundwork for employing critical theory to student’s assigned texts. Students who were working with the same text were paired together and then began replicating the exercise, conceptualizing their partner’s text to develop topics and possible keywords for database searches on critical theory (pp. 84-85). This preliminary exercise could lay the foundation for helping students develop thesis statements. Talking about their ideas with a peer yielded much more success than merely lecturing on thesis statements alone. Such an exercise helps transform the traditional power dynamic from teacher to student, to student to student and student to teacher. The exercise made critical theory more accessible.

We need to break stereotypes and back off of our own assumptions about this group. FCGS should not be synonymous with the word poor – all FGCS do not come from low-income families. Three out of five FCGS do not complete a degree within six years. More than a quarter of FGCS leave school after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher income second-generation students. Even knocking down a common definition for FGCS is contentious. Lots of work remains to be done, but a commitment to critical information literacy for FGCS is an important first step.

None of these ideas are revolutionary, and I am far from the first person to write about their own reflections of Elmborg’s article (many of those reflections are cited in Eamon Tewell’s article titled “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature”) or critical information literacy. But critical information literacy is crucial not just for FGCS – it is for everyone. The onus is on librarians to completely re-examine our purpose – are we educators? Is our professional identity tethered to being considered “experts”? Are we committed to agency – both our institutional agency and our student’s (especially marginalized groups) agency in the academy? How can we effectively operate in the tension between theory and practice in our daily work? In the ten years since Elmborg published the article, are we any closer to answering these questions?


Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Reale, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy in the classroom: Library instruction that gives voice to students and builds a community of scholars. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 80-88.

On “Everything”: Reflections on working in a field that is all-encompassing

Everything is information. Even some physicists and philosophers believe that information might be the basis of reality itself. According to a physicist quoted in a PBS blog post, one can imagine a universe without matter or energy, but one cannot imagine a universe without information. Hegel, the philosopher, also famously stated, “The real is the rational, the rational is the real.” If the rational is what we can know, and information is defined as what we can know, then reality itself is information insofar as it is knowable. (Of course we may able to know more than just information, and I’ll elaborate upon that in Part I of this post.)

“Everything is information” is a predominant maxim in librarianship. Ever since library school, with the antelope-as-a-document example we learned, it is clear: librarians are all about this statement. A simple syllogism can then tell us, then, that librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. (If everything is information and librarianship focuses on everything having to do with information, such as the research lifecycle, then librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. Or, to be a little less meta, just everything!) Of course it may be more complex than this, depending upon definitions and grammatical nuances, and I am no logician. But the focus of our profession is all-encompassing.

In this post, I would like to run with this idea…see where it leads – a sort of thought experiment. I will do that in Part II of this post, and will ask: what are the implications of working in a field where the focus is everything? Yet, first I would like to address some of the problems with the maxim and present a preliminary critique of it. For Part I of this post, I will ask: Does Everything is Information take into account our lived experience? What place does knowledge have? My first draft of this post left out the distinction between information and knowledge, and some of my colleagues pointed this out to me. Now upon further reflection, I think this distinction is critical, because it throws into question the notion that Everything is Information and does a better job of accounting for lived experience.

Part I

Everything is Information suggests information is all there is, but what place does knowledge have, then, in reality? Does Everything is Information take into account the full range and types of human experience?

Along with Tony Stamatoplos, I am co-chairing the ACRL Anthropology and Sociology Section 2017 Program Planning Committee. We are hoping to propose a panel that will incorporate such a critique. We want to focus on non-textual information, on the lived experiences and physical/material realities of social activists, the kind of non-textual information they produce, and what role libraries can/should play when it comes to this kind of information. So of course the panel will address the distinctions between information, knowledge, and human understanding. We are hoping to invite Richard Gilman-Opalsky, a political philosopher, to be on a panel, along with an archivist with experience in this area and hopefully an activist who is on the ground. Gilman-Opalsky’s forthcoming book, Specters of Revolt – touches on some of these ideas, as well as how revolt is a form of philosophy that takes place from below as compared to philosophy from above, which characterizes the work done by scholars. While I have to wait for the book to be released, I know that Gilman-Opalsky challenges Thesis 11 from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Gilman-Opalsky believes that activities that change the world are already a form of philosophy. Gilman-Opalsky sees activism as a form of philosophy that is better than philosophy from above in many ways, because of its “collective, experimental, creative, and humanist dimensions” (Richard Gilman-Opalsky, personal email). His work points to the inherent rationality of revolt as well as the historical context of different movements, as revolt makes a lot more sense when understood within the context of surrounding events and root causes. Indeed, sometimes the absence of revolt is actually what is irrational, as revolt can be the most sensible response to a particular reality.

All of this is to say that “Everything is Information” is a gross reduction of “everything” that discounts the full range of human experience insofar as it leaves out knowledge and understanding. Certain things – physical, material realities, cannot be reduced to text, or even to bits. To reduce some things – experiences, perhaps – to text or to bits means they will be compromised somehow. Something is lost in the translation. To go with the example of activism, it is an embodiment of rationality, the result of history, a reaction to systemic violence and racism, for example, as well as the expression of various affective states stemming from prior experience. It is oftentimes an expression of anger and desire – desire for a better world free of injustice. None of these things can be reduced to information.

Yet we can have knowledge about activism. We observe it, have an awareness about it, and even participate in it. We understand it. We know it on a deeper level than we know, say, mathematical formulas, because it has to do with human experience, which is very complex.

In spite of this fixation on this maxim, we actually do take knowledge into account in librarianship, as well, as a part of the research lifecycle, which includes a deep understanding of information in order to be able to communicate it to others, and that is necessary for the whole field of scholarly communication. We cannot communicate well what we do not understand ourselves. Yet in librarianship, sometimes it seems that we minimize the importance of knowledge or understanding, valuing information and evidence more highly. With scholarly communication, the focus seems to be on the transmission or dissemination of information, not knowledge or understanding. At this point, I am merely speculating as I haven’t thoroughly examined these ideas in order to make an informed critique of the place of knowledge in librarianship. I wonder what such an examination might reveal?

Part II

Back to Everything is Information, a thought experiment. What does it imply for us? I will also take into account that librarianship covers knowledge and understanding as well, not just information. We do truly cover everything! What are the implications of working in an all-encompassing field?

First, there is this idea that as our focus is information, we gather, process, comprehend, understand, and create information that is about information. This is very meta, and I think as human beings who are rational, sensing, thinking creatures we have a need for this meta aspect to thought that is provided by our field. We have a need to think about and ask questions about what information, knowledge, and understanding are – in order to fully engage with them, experience them, and create new knowledge (although Plato would disagree with that last bit – there is no new knowledge!). Speaking of Plato, just as philosophers point to the human need to think about reality, so we, as librarians, point to the human need to think about information and knowledge. Insofar as we facilitate these processes, our field – and thinking about everything – will never go out of style.

I also think this means as librarians, we really have opportunities to be creative and think outside the box. There are many different ways to think about information and knowledge, and thus many different ways to think about our field. Especially with information literacy instruction, there are all kinds of ways we can rethink the meaning and practices within information literacy. For example, information literacy also includes literacy – reading and comprehending information. This type of skill certainly crosses the distinction between information and knowledge, as to read deeply and comprehend a text is to have knowledge of the content or topic of the text. On this basis, I developed a critical reading workshop to help undergraduates learn skills in reading dense theoretical texts. These are skills that are important, yet often left to classroom instructors who in most cases probably can rarely take the time to teach such skills. As experts in information literacy and literacy, we are perfectly positioned to do so. This example, too, points to this idea that as information professionals and librarians, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the information/knowledge distinction, and what constitutes knowledge, because students learn from us, as well, how to arrive at a place where they actually know something. We don’t just look at the evidence when we teach information literacy. Even evaluation and formulating a research question require some degree of knowledge, and we assist with these activities.

Finally, the fact that librarianship is very meta also means that the library means different things to different people, and serves different roles for different people. The library isn’t everything to everybody, but it is something to everyone. That is a good thing, but it also can be a point of confusion and contention, especially between librarians and those outside the profession. The broadness and narrowness of our field (as etymologically, it is simply a place for books) sometimes means that the importance of the librarianship is minimized or discounted, but librarians will always be tasked with providing a space where “everything” can be explored, a space where the mind grows – where the real is the rational – a space where we can gather the evidence or information, contemplate it, and experience knowledge and understanding. This is profound.

“Playable, not just performable”: Telling the story of information literacy

I was reading Carrie Brownstein’s book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, a month or two ago, and a particular passage grabbed me so much that I keep going back to it. If you don’t know Carrie’s work, the short version is that she’s an indie rock/punk icon (best known for her band Sleater-Kinney) and more recently an indie comedy star, too (of TV series Portlandia fame).

Early on in her book, Carrie reflects on the massive stadium-size concerts she attended as a girl. Seeing Madonna and George Michael live was awe-inspiring and set her young adolescent heart and mind alight. She describes “witnessing” the “spectacle” of these events: “The experience … was immense; the grandiosity was ungraspable, it was the Olympics, it was a mountain, it was outer space.”

But Carrie’s story is not just about watching and witnessing; it’s about becoming and making. Which brings me to the part I really love (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Yet the music I was hearing and the concerts I was witnessing were also mystifying and inaccessible. It was the ‘80s, and much of what I loved was synthed-out pop and Top 40 music, more programmed than played. The music was in the room and in my body, yet I had no idea how it had been assembled or how to break it apart.

This, I thought to myself, is exactly what I mean when I talk about information literacy. Carrie’s reflection continued as she described how she bought her first guitar and started going to punk and rock shows at smaller venues (again, the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Here I could get close to the players themselves. I could see how the drums worked with the guitars and bass, I could watch fingers move along frets and feet stomp down on effects pedals, I saw the set lists taped to the floor, and sometimes I was close enough to see the amp or pickup settings. I observed the nature of the bands, their internal interactions, their relationships to one another, as much as I listened. It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable–that it had a process and a seed, a beginning, middle, and end. Everyone who plays music needs to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it. And I suppose this form of witness could happen aurally; perhaps it’s as easy as hearing an Andy Gill riff or a Kim Gordon cadence and knowing intuitively how that all works. Then you form those sounds yourself, with your own hands and your own voice. Or maybe you see it on a video, in footage of a musician who finally translates and unlocks what you thought was a mystery. For me, however, I needed to be there–to see guitarists … in the wholly relatable attire of threadbare T-shirts and jean shorts, enact a weird nerd sexiness, strangely minimal, maximally perverse. I could watch them play songs that weren’t coming out of thin air or from behind a curtain. I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.

It was in the small clubs with small bands, up close and personal, that Carrie could not only experience the music and witness the final product in all its glory, but also figure out how the music was constructed. And better still, how she could construct it, too. I’m not suggesting information literacy has the allure of music shows, large or small. Ha! Instead, I’m saying that I recognize in Carrie’s reflection the power of uncovering process to enable an individual’s participation and agency that is also at the core of information literacy. Her story serves as an illustration of the disconnects that students experience and why it’s important to help them uncover, develop, and articulate process. To see the “mystifying” final product (of scholarly research as published in a journal article or book, for example) is impressive and edifying, but for many is a closed door. To instead understand how something (again, that research) is made–to see its final whole, but also the pieces that make it up and the process of its making–is to open the door to one’s own potential participation.

A few months ago, I posted about some activities I used with students to “dissect” articles. Through these guided activities, we explored how sample articles (one from a scholarly journal, one from The New Yorker) were constructed. The most immediate goal was to help students parse these samples to see how authors use and synthesize sources and to what effect. Dissecting the sources broke open the elegant final products such that students could better see their component parts. By “decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable,” then, the goal was to set students up for constructing their own work, helping them recognize their own potential participation. Not quite the blood and guts of the pit at a punk rock show, but still a developmental and empowering step in its own right.

I’ve put Carrie’s story to use a few times in recent weeks, most notably in conversation with faculty about assignment design and pedagogy. The anecdote’s resonance was apparent in their faces and in our conversation. It occurs to me that this is, at least in part, the kind of thing I meant when I wrote about “writing it better” over a year ago. I’m calling to mind now some of the disappointing moments when I attempted to show others the breadth and depth of information literacy as I see it, but my message fell short or our connection was missed. Compelling examples, stories, and metaphors go a long way to helping us all recognize our common ground. How do you effectively tell the story of information literacy and its power? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…

#libeyrianship: Pop Culture and #critlib in Information Literacy Programs

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jennifer Ferretti, Digital Initiatives Librarian, and Siân Evans, Instructional Librarian, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Beyoncé’s new album ‘Lemonade’ dropped April 23, 2016 as both a traditional album and a “visual album.” The visual album weaves poetry, music, cinematography, fashion, and literary and film references into an hour-long film that follows a woman going through stages of grief. The album was highly anticipated by two librarians at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Jennifer Ferretti, Digital Initiatives Librarian, and Siân Evans, Instructional Librarian. After watching Bey’s Formation music video and her performance at Super Bowl 50, Jenny and Siân realized the topics Beyoncé is exploring in her music provides a perfect opportunity to engage students through a popular point of reference.

In seeking to make research more exciting to undergraduate art students, while also promoting critical thinking skills, Siân developed an instruction session which included a visual analysis of Beyoncé’s Formation, a discussion of Black Lives Matter, and an active learning component in which the students responded to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance by researching the Black Panther Party in the library catalog, research databases, and special collections. Jenny, also invested in developing critical thinking skills via popular culture, primarily through digital resources, designed a topical LibGuide which provides perspectives, opinions, and ideas referenced or directly address in Lemonade.

In this post, borrowing The New York Times Bits Saturday newsletter’s conversational style, Jenny and Siân discuss #critlib, engaged instruction, and the success of the topical LibGuide “Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Information Resources.”

Jenny: Hi Siân! What are you up to?

Siân: Morning, Jenny! I’m just prepping for a meeting with a faculty member who is teaching a course on Art and Totalitarianism. You?

Jenny: Sounds interesting! I got an email today that has me thinking about my unit of the library, Digital Initiatives, taking on archiving websites.

Siân: Nice! I was having coffee with my dog, Pickle, this morning and I noticed that an article in City Paper came out about the Lemonade LibGuide you made. How many times has that LibGuide been viewed now?

Jenny: Aw, Pickle! Let me check… 39,775 views as of today!

Siân: Dang, girl! How does it feel to be internet librarian famous??

Jenny: <blushing> Honestly, I’m still taking it all in. It feels great to feel supported by so many people who work in libraries, archives, and museums. I love the fact that I can talk about Beyoncé and librarianship in the same conversation. I’m also really enjoying all the other projects that are popping up that are related, like the #LemonadeSyllabus.

Siân: The guide was shared on Twitter by Sherrilyn Ifill, President & Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, School Library Journal, and Kimberly Drew (aka @museummammy), founder of Black Contemporary Art and Associate Online Community Producer at The Met, among many, many others. It even has its own hashtag: #libeyrianship. That’s pretty epic! So, why did you choose to publish it as a LibGuide? What do you think about them as a means of instruction?

Jenny: The shares have been overwhelming in the best possible way. One of the things I love about Twitter is that you can speak to a certain community, but what you say can also echo out to people you thought wouldn’t find what you do relevant to them. I’m grateful for every share and like!

Honestly, I chose to publish the research guide as a LibGuide because the platform lets you organize information quickly and easily. I didn’t want a list of links. I wanted gifs, book covers, etc. LibGuides can be used for lots of purposes. Decker has been using guides mostly for programs. I find LibGuides to be most successful when they center in on a particular subject or research topic.

After sitting in on your library instruction class based on Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance and Formation video, the idea for a research guide on Lemonade just made sense. In fact, that class went so well and was so different from what I’ve seen here previously, could you tell us a bit more about the idea behind it?

Siân: Sure! I think that was one of the first conversations you and I had about librarianship, because we were both so fascinated by Beyoncé as a means to critical instruction. I had just started working at MICA and I was so thrilled to learn that there are faculty here who are open to creative, critical library instruction.

So, less than a month into my job, I convinced a particularly thoughtful and engaged professor to let me test out my “Beyoncé-based instruction session.” Her class consisted of first year students, mostly fine arts or graphic design majors, who had limited research experience and, in some cases, doubts about the relevance of library research to their work. Our goals were to get them to think about why research is relevant to their practice, to introduce them to different types of library resources, and to think critically about how they read and access information generally. We started with a visual response to the video Formation, mimicking the format of the crits they experience in their studio practice.

Jenny: I have to stop you right there. I loved the visual response part of the session. As MICA alum, I know how important it is to learn effective critique skills, both giving and receiving feedback. I think it’s so interesting that you connected critique to information literacy in this way. It reminds me of Larissa Garcia and Jessica Labatte’s writing on metaliteracy, where multiple literacies such as visual, news, digital, etc. intersect.[1] The session resonated strongly with me, so I can imagine it did a lot for our students.

Siân: Aw, thanks Jenny! I honestly did that kind of on the fly! I’d been thinking about how to engage students who don’t see research as relevant to their practice. So, I used the video and our visual analysis of it as a jumping off point to discuss plagiarism, with the example of Beyoncé’s usage of footage from the Bounce documentary, That B.E.A.T. We looked at some of our Special Collections on related subject matter and, finally, in an active learning session, we had students researching the Black Panthers on Google, in our databases, and online catalogue. In the assessment survey, one student commented that this was the first she’d heard of the Black Panthers! I really feel that starting with a familiar, popular reference helped draw the students into the research process.

I know you have similar thoughts about the ‘Lemonade’ research guide. Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on the role of popular culture in librarianship?

Jenny: The ‘Lemonade’ guide is the first time I’ve publicly connected a piece of popular culture with librarianship. I started thinking about film and television and librarianship as I watched The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Sounds weird, I know. There’s a scene in that TV series where a large group of protestors are gathered outside the courthouse. Vendors are also there selling merchandise about O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence. My first thought was, “did the producers see this sort of thing in the original news footage?” As an advisory board member on the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising archive project where we collect images, sound, and text from the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, I’m constantly thinking about how people, including librarians and educators, will use the archive now and in the future. Did you see the job posting for the Librarian for Literary and Popular Culture Collections at Brown University Library?

Siân: Yes! I think it’s amazing that more libraries are aware that we need to be #relevant! I think that another one of your LibGuides, Understanding Civic Unrest in Baltimore 1968-2015, is also evidence of this drive to make research relevant to the community in which you work. I feel like the elephant in the fictional room of our conversation is critical librarianship. How do you think #critlib plays into your work as a Digital Initiatives Librarian?

Jenny: Great question. First, I think less about how to stay relevant and more about how searching, analyzing, and disseminating information plays into many situations, including art. As Kenny Garcia wrote, “critical librarianship seeks to be transformative, empowering, and a direct challenge to power and privilege.”[2] #critlib asks us to be self-reflective and conscious of ourselves and our institutions so that we don’t contribute to systems of oppression. This is what I thought librarianship was about, I just didn’t have a way of articulating this before I learned about #critlib.

While at the peaceful protests and gatherings during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, for some reason I felt like I should be there as a Baltimore resident, a person against police brutality, but also as a librarian. I don’t see a separation between librarianship and social justice. Now that I know more about #critlib, I understand why. Do you ever feel that way?

Siân: Definitely. As librarians, we promote equal access to knowledge and educational resources, so our work shouldn’t be limited to the library, the classroom, or even the campus. I see my work with Art+Feminism, for example, as “information activism” that is an extension of my work as a librarian.

Jenny: I’m so glad you brought up Art+Feminism! I’ve been a fan from afar. Before you arrived at MICA, I read a great ACRLog post about instructional design by Lindsay O’Neill. It was the first time I thought about critical instruction and design and I know we’ve talked about similar ideas. Could you talk a bit about any plans you might have for instructional design and how critical instruction differs from a more traditional take on library instruction?

Siân: That’s a great question and one I feel only .5% qualified to answer! 🙂 In my work with Art+Feminism and in my previous job at Artstor, I’ve had the opportunity to work with lots of designers and UX researchers, as well as librarians. I loved Lindsay’s post! And it brought up a lot of food for thought about the cognitive overload in my current instruction practice. As an art historian and librarian I have perhaps an unproductive love of text. But, I see teaching as an agile, iterative process. I think a lot of critical instruction is based on this principle as well — teaching isn’t top-down, it’s a process of communication between the instructor and the students. So, it has to be ever-evolving.

For anyone who wants an introduction to this, Eamon Tewell just published a literature review on a decade’s worth of critical information literacy and I really recommend Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning.

Jenny: Wow, ten years worth of critical information literacy! I’m really looking forward to watching (and contributing in some ways to) the evolution of our information literacy program here at Decker Library. And I’m happy that I have someone to talk about Beyoncé with at work. 🙂

Siân: Ditto! It’s amazing to have inspiring colleagues who are doing important work, it’s like a daily reminder of why I became a librarian. And our #dailybey Slack channel is a definite highlight!


Decker Library will be hosting a Twitter chat about the LibGuide and instruction on Wednesday, June 8 at 2pm EST. Follow along using #libeyrianship and @deckerlibrary.

[1] Larissa Garcia and Jessica Labatte, “Threshold Concepts as Metaphors for the Creative Process: Adapting the Framework for Information Literacy to Studio Art Classes,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 34, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 235-248.

[2] Garcia, K. Keeping Up With… Critical Librarianship. Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association. Retrieved from

Information literacy strategies and student agency: Connecting the dots with “dissection” activities

I’ve mentioned before (like here, here, and here, for example) that I’ve been trying to get students to think metacognitively about the strategy of their work. Such a lens helps students turn a concrete experience into a framework of best practices for their future application. In the case of the common information literacy session devoted to searching, for example, this means moving away from thinking about a series of keystrokes and clicks to instead thinking about the why: why we select particular search words, why we enter them in a database in such a way, why we get back a particular set of results, why we select individual sources, and so on. By talking about strategy, we reflect on the purpose and the effect of the choices we make. By turning our steps into best practices, we see how to apply them the next time around. Time and again, I’m excited to see how engaged students are in these conversations. Talking about strategies helps them recognize and enhance their agency in the research process.

I’ve been trying to embed this strategy lens wherever I can. I’ve had occasion in the past few weeks to work with some faculty and students on strategies for synthesizing information particularly. For example, I recently worked with a faculty member and students in a senior capstone psychology course. By the time students get to this course, they’ve likely had a number of information literacy sessions with me. An intensive experience in the sophomore/junior research methods course is a core part of their information literacy development in the major, but we’ve likely intersected in other anchor and elective courses, too. And that’s only the librarian-led information literacy experiences. There are plenty of other faculty-led information literacy learning experiences along the way. The capstone, then, is a course where we can make some assumptions about students’ past courses and knowledge. When the faculty member and I sat down to talk about our goals for this course, we honed in on what we see as students’ biggest continuing struggle: synthesizing sources. By this point, they can identify and narrow research questions, find peer-reviewed empirical journal articles, and read and understand the methodology and findings of those articles. They still struggle, though, with effectively putting those sources to work in their own writing. More specifically, we wanted students to consider how an empirical journal article’s introduction and literature review are constructed, as they think ahead to their own research and writing for the course’s major research project. To that end, we developed a few activities to help students work on developing their synthesis skills. Over the course of two consecutive sessions, we implemented the following plan.

Session 1

Part A – Working backward: Dissecting an article’s introduction and literature review

  • We selected an article that students had read for a previous class session so that they already had some familiarity with it. Students worked with their pre-existing research groups to read the article’s introduction and literature review. We developed the following questions to guide students’ close reading. We numbered the article’s paragraphs and asked students to specifically locate illustrative passages. After working through the questions in their small groups, we then discussed each question as an entire class.
    • Where and how do the authors discuss the real world significance of the topic and their research (i.e., why we should care)?
    • Where and how do the authors refer to and use theoretical frameworks?
    • Where and how do the authors give a bird’s eye view (i.e., overview) of research related to their topic?
    • Where and how do the authors discuss other studies’ findings?
    • Where and how do the authors discuss other studies’ designs/methods?
    • Where and how do the authors identify holes or gaps in the existing research?
    • Where and how do the authors introduce their own research question/study? How do they relate their question/study to the identified gaps in the existing research?

Part B – Working from the ground up: From a single article to patterns across articles

  • We talked about approaches to reading and notetaking to help students identify how to focus their attention on what’s important in an article and recognize patterns across sources. We modeled creating and using a chart to track individual sources and set up opportunities for pattern recognition and synthesis. We illustrated this reading/notetaking strategy with the following chart details:
    • In the chart, each column is a category/prompt about an aspect of an article (e.g., question, hypothesis, methods, measures used, findings, research gaps/recommendations, etc.) and each row is an article (e.g., Jones 2012, Rodriguez and Smith 2014).
    • Each cell of the chart gets populated with the students’ summary about that aspect of the article. This helps students to identify what’s important in each article and to succinctly paraphrase key elements.
    • Once completed, students can scan each category (i.e., column) in the chart to find themes, similarities, and differences across sources.
    • Students can organize the notes (i.e., cells) into groups by those themes, similarities, and differences, working toward an outline. Their summary and paraphrasing can begin to transform into sentences in each group or paragraph. Their ideas about the patterns they’ve identified can help them introduce and close the paragraphs and transition between sources in each paragraph.

Homework for Session 2

  • Students in each research group identified an important article for their own research project, already underway. Each group member was to read the article and individually respond to the dissection guiding questions for that article’s introduction and literature review.
  • Students were to begin developing their own charts for notetaking and complete at least one row of the chart for the group’s common reading.

Session 2

  • Students worked with their research groups to discuss their responses to the dissection guiding questions, as well as their first steps on their notetaking charts. The faculty member and I consulted with each group.

Students’ responses to these activities were overwhelmingly positive. They were actively engaged in the small and large group discussions. Multiple students commented to me how much they wished they had learned these approaches sooner.

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While the above example was implemented with a group of seniors, there is certainly room to work on synthesis with younger students. A few weeks after the psychology capstone, I tried a similar activity with students in a first year seminar. At my institution, first year seminars are small, discussion-oriented courses that focus on students’ critical thinking and writing. This time, the faculty member, the course’s writing assistant (a more experienced student who is trained and embedded in the class as as a writing tutor/mentor), and I worked together to focus on helping students identify and evaluate how evidence is used in high quality popular literature (think essays published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic). By dissecting how authors use information differently in their essays to develop their ideas and engage readers, we wanted to help students become more critical consumers of information and also help them think about their use of information in their own writing. In a single course session, we implemented the following plan:

Dissecting an essay

  • We selected an essay recently published in The New Yorker related to the theme of the course. We asked students to read the essay in class and then, in a group of three, to locate and discuss key elements of the essay and their purposes, per the following guiding questions. We asked students to specifically locate illustrative passages. After working through the questions in their small groups, we discussed each question as an entire class.
    • Where can you locate the author’s thesis?
    • Where does the author use evidence to support her thesis?
      • Where does the integrate an anecdote? Why? To what effect?
      • Where does the author use quotations? Why? To what effect?
      • Where does the author cite academic research / data? Why? To what effect?
    • How does the author establish expertise and authority?
    • Where does the author pose questions? Why? To what effect? How does the author use evidence to answer the questions?
    • How does the author conclude the essay? How has the author used evidence in the essay to build to/support the conclusion?


  • Students were asked to read another article and again respond to the dissection guiding questions.

Once again, students were actively engaged in discussion. I was struck by the thoughtfulness of their contributions. The writing assistant in the first year seminar wrote me later to say how she appreciated that the activity and the guiding questions

“scaffolded student discussion and forced students to talk about ‘hard’ or ‘stressful’ topics (like the thesis, using evidence to support claims, determining how the author asserts power) one at a time, thus reducing the anxiety involved! Truthfully, I plan to use these questions to prompt myself next time a reading baffles me!”

I think it’s worth recognizing the affective language in her note: hard, stressful, anxiety, baffles. Developing strategies, as uncovered in these examples, can help students develop agency.

In both courses, guiding questions directed students to read closely and analyze sources incrementally. The guiding questions helped students recognize what’s important in a source and served as a model for how to critically read and analyze other sources. Moreover, the scaffolded questions served as a framework for students to make sense of the content itself and for their own writing and synthesis. By dissecting the sources for these key elements, students could see how each was constructed, decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable.

How do you help students develop strategies and agency? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.